NAB 2017: Gordon Smith Says Broadcasters Poised to Be Digital Convergence Players

Full Coverage of NAB 2017

Fresh off an "out of this world" opening, NAB president Gordon Smith told an NAB Show crowd in Las Vegas Monday that the story of broadcasting was built on innovation, inspiration and imagination, signaling a new convergent, digital future for broadcasters.

Technology may change, he said, but "the highest-quality content will always find its way to broadcast TV because of its unparalleled reach."

The session kicked off with a 4K hello and back flip from astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson from the International Space Station.

In the wake of a spectrum auction where virtually all of the participating broadcasters plan to remain in the business, he said it remained clear who the highest and best users of spectrum remained—a phrase the FCC used to describe the goals of the auction—his audience.

Smith also stood up for the right and responsibility of broadcasters to use that reach to tell truth to power. "Broadcasters carry the torch of freedom and integrity, and we must use this to question those in power, to expose those who abuse their positions and to find the truth," he said.

Riffing a bit on the space theme, Smith said of the industry, "from Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast to the live television broadcast of man's first steps on the Moon to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the tragedy of 9/11, America's broadcasters have brought us the indelible moments that have touched our lives."

It was an audience looking forward with hope and likely some trepidation.

The hope was for deregulatory help from FCC chairman Ajit Pai—who has promised it and already delivered, rolling back the Tom Wheeler-era elimination of the UHF discount and limits on joint sales agreements—and for a new ATSC 3.0 transmission standard that can make them an interactive digital player. The trepidation is the Rubik's cube complexity of the post incentive-auction repack now facing most of a thousand stations.

As he signaled in an interview with B&C last week, Smith emphasized change and choice.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler used to talk about the virtuous internet cycle, and Smith signaled broadcasters are part of that cycle. He defined it as "the idea that adopting new distribution platforms serves to build our overall audience and engagement with them."

He said that such changes lead to choices, including the choice of broadcasters to embrace their strengths of live, local and targeted.

And in a world of fake news, and news branded as such, local broadcasters are the most trusted source for news and information, he said. That came only hours after President Donald Trump had renewed his 'fake news' attacks on news outlets, including ABC and NBC over recent polls.

While change is inevitable and to be embraced, he suggested, the one constant remains the industry's core principles.

Those include being a lifeline in emergencies, raising awareness on health and social issues—NAB has focused recently on mental health and opioid abuse—providing good jobs and essential info driven by their ad-supported model, and defending democratic, small "d," ideals, including the right to speak freely "without fear of recrimination" and the right for the press to challenge the government and "root out corruption in high places, public or private."

He touched on the recent incentive auction, pointing out that TV stations turned down $38 billion during the auction "compared to speculators and wireless companies that paid $19 billion for a portion of the TV band," adding: "I think we now know what the highest and best use of spectrum is."

Smith said ATSC 3.0 was the first broadcast standard to combine the benefits of broadcast and broadband and what he said would be the seamless convergence of over-the-air and over-the-top.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.